On Saturday, Northwestern will take on No. 6 Ohio State in Columbus, where the Wildcats haven’t won since 1971. Despite Northwestern riding a 3-game winning streak and the Buckeyes coming off a loss to Penn State, the Wildcats are currently 27-point underdogs. And rightfully so. Ohio State is still one of the best teams in the country, with elite talent on both sides of the ball and one of the game’s best coaches in Urban Meyer.
Perhaps most importantly, the Buckeyes have J.T. Barrett.
With all due respect to Tommy Armstrong Jr., this Northwestern team has never seen anything like Barrett before. The Heisman candidate is one of the best quarterbacks in the country due to his freakish athleticism and dual-threat ability.
This is going to be a huge test for the Wildcats’ defense, which turned in a bounce-back performance against Indiana after a rough stretch. However, slowing Barrett and the Ohio State offense can be done. In beating the Buckeyes 24-21 last Saturday, Penn State showed Northwestern what it needs to do.
But before we get into that, let’s take a look at what makes Barrett such a dynamic player.
The Barrett File
As a redshirt freshman in 2014, Barrett took over the starting quarterback role after Braxton Miller went down with a season-ending injury. He went on to rack up 45 touchdowns and over 3700 total yards and lead Ohio State to an 11-1 record, good enough for a fifth-place finish in Heisman voting. Barrett was injured in the last game of the regular season, but Cardale Jones famously stepped up and lead the Buckeyes to the inaugural College Football Playoff title.
Barrett split time with Jones in 2015 but has the offense all to himself as a junior this season. He dominated through the air in a big non-conference win over Oklahoma and on the ground in victories against Indiana and Wisconsin, but struggled in last week’s shocking upset in Happy Valley.
Let’s get to the tape.
Barrett is a talented but not elite passer of the football. He is very accurate, as evidenced by his 64.0 career completion percentage, but doesn’t have the strongest arm and can struggle to fit the ball into tight windows.
Here’s a great example of Barrett’s accuracy:
That is a perfectly placed back-shoulder throw that travels 45 yards in the air. Barrett had good protection, stepped into the throw and found his favorite target, Noah Brown. Brown had FOUR touchdown receptions in this game and is going to be an incredibly difficult matchup for Montre Hartage or Trae Williams. At 6-foot-2, Brown has a couple of inches on both of those guys to go along with great hands and a strong rapport with Barrett. That connection is on display on one of the pair’s three other TDs.
Notice how Barrett throws a strike right as Brown is making his cut, placing it right on the sidelines and at a great height for catching. Barrett is deadly in the short-intermediate passing game, meaning we could see plenty of easy first downs on comeback routes on Saturday.
Barrett is also pretty good at throwing on the run, something he often does after escaping pressure (more on that in a second). Here he is against Wisconsin, floating a perfect pass down the sideline on 3rd and long while rolling to his right.
Two plays earlier, Barrett also had to roll right. Except this time, he stopped and threw off his back foot, putting the ball where only 6-foot-4 tight end Marcus Baugh could make a play on it.
Those are just a couple examples of what makes Barrett dangerous in the passing game. Northwestern will need to give Hartage or Williams safety help against Brown and play good coverage for longer periods of time, as Barrett can extend plays out of the pocket.
This is what J.T. Barrett does best.
It’s also what makes this offense so good. Ohio State is a run-first team; with Barrett and running backs Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel, the Buckeyes have the best ground game in the Big Ten. They’re averaging 281.6 yards per game on the ground, 8th-best in the country.
To get a good idea of how many ways Barrett can beat defense with his legs, let’s look at some clips from the Indiana game. The Hoosiers shut down Barrett in the passing game, holding him to 93 yards and just 9 completions on 21 attempts. So instead, Ohio State ran on almost every play, with Barrett going for 137 yards on 26 carries.
- The read option
Barrett is incredibly good at running the read option in terms of knowing when to hand the ball off and when to keep it. He often sells the handoff for nearly a full second before pulling the ball back and taking off. Because Weber and Samuel are so explosive, defenses have to honor that they might be getting the ball. As soon as a defender commits to the running back, Barrett is gone.
2. The speed option
This is another way the Buckeyes get Barrett into open space. On the speed option, he has the option to pitch the ball or tuck it and run and just like on the read option, Barrett is very smart in knowing which to choose.
3. Designed QB runs
Ohio State also dials up runs for Barrett that don’t involve any sort of option. On these types of plays, Barrett uses running back-like vision and patience to find holes and get through them.
On this play, Barrett is looking to pass. Finding nobody open, he takes off, using his speed to get to the second level and easily evading a linebacker to pick up the first down.
Here’s one from the Penn State game.
Barrett’s running ability should be the absolute No. 1 focus of Northwestern’s defense in preparation for this game. The last time the Wildcats faced a dual-threat quarterback, Tommy Armstrong Jr. ran 13 times for 132 yards. Barrett is better than Armstrong. That’s a scary thought. Northwestern will need to tackle extremely well, get off blocks and always have a spy on Barrett when he drops back to pass.
How to slow down JT Barrett
It’s all about pressure and tackling.
Penn State pulled off the upset because the Nittany Lions sacked Barrett six times and held him to 17 carries for 26 yards. When a defense can get pressure against Barrett, he becomes much less effective as both a passer and a runner.
At 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, Barrett is a tough guy to bring down. That’s why its important to get pressure from multiple sources and for defenders to tackle well once they get to him.
Watch what happens when Penn State does just that.
Now watch what happens when the Nittany Lions don’t tackle well. Seriously, watch this play.
DEs Ifeadi Odenigbo (an Ohio native) and Joe Gaziano are going to have to have big games for Northwestern to have a shot on Saturday.
However, Mike Hankwitz can’t just rush four on every down and expect to have success against Barrett. He is going to need to blitz and be creative with it, whether that means running stunts with his DEs (watch No. 94),
sending DBs at Barrett,
or any other different looks.
Beyond simply getting pressure, the Wildcats will also need to stay disciplined against Barrett in the running game. When he sets up the read option, it’s crucial to have tacklers ready for both the running back and Barrett, like Penn State does here.
Anthony Walker Jr. and the rest of Northwestern’s linebackers are going to have to fill the correct gaps and make tackles. In the passing game, Northwestern’s secondary will need to play good coverage to provide the line with ample time to get to the passer.
J.T. Barrett is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. He’s a very solid passer and has great weapons in Noah Brown and Dontre Wilson, but what makes him so good is how dangerous he is on the ground. Barrett is big, agile, fast and has the pure running ability of a running back. With that said, it is possible to limit his effectiveness with pressure and good tackling. If the Wildcats can follow Penn State’s model and slow down Barrett, they will have a chance to hang around in this game. It’s going to be extremely tough, but that’s why Ohio State is favored by 27.